Goodspeed's "Damn Yankees": You Gotta Have Art

The Red Sox in "Damn Yankees"
(photo: Diane Sobolewski)

Be careful what you wish for. We‘re all familiar with the phrase, yet we constantly discover examples of hastily-made wishes with unintended consequences. So it was for Faust in the legendary fifteenth century German tale when he sold his soul to the devil in exchange for limitless knowledge and pleasure; so it is also for the hero of the Tony-winning musical “Damn Yankees”, wherein one very average Joe (claiming to be from Hannibal, Mo.) trades up (then down) for a limited-time-only run as a baseball hero. This musical version of the legend bowed in 1955, with Music and Lyrics by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross (who died just six months after the opening), and Book by George Abbott and Douglas Wallop (with an un-credited assist from Richard Bissell, who just the season before had co-written “Pajama Game” with Abbott), based on Wallop’s novel “The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant”. Conceived largely as a dance show, and presenting Gwen Verdon in her first starring role, the original ran over a thousand performances, winning a total of eight Tony Awards including Best Musical. A 1958 film (wisely) kept most of the original cast intact although it (unwisely) miscast a non-singer, Tab Hunter, as the hero, with decidedly mixed results. A revival in 1994 with Bebe Neuwirth and Victor Garber (with Jerry Lewis for part of the run) was more successful. At its heart are two warm and bittersweet love stories, for a spouse and for The Game.

The current production at Goodspeed Opera House has been updated and adapted (subtitled “The Red Sox version”) by Joe DiPietro (known for his libretti at Goodspeed for “They All Laughed” and “All Shook Up”). It was a brilliant choice, making the plot topical and the newly minted jokes hilariously hip. As directed here by Daniel Goldstein and choreographed by Kelli Barclay, its locale is 1955 Boston; thus this must be the first musical in history with scenes at Fenway Park. (The show begins with a scrim with a stylized view of what suspiciously resembles a certain Green Monstah). The Boyds, Joe (James Judy) and Meg (Ann Arvia) are watching a Red Sox/Yankees game on television. Suddenly, Joe is visited by one fiery character, Applegate (David Beach), who makes him an offer he can’t refuse. He transforms Joe into the considerably younger Joe Hardy (Stephen Mark Lukas) who will save the Sox if he sells his soul. With Applegate‘s henchwoman Lola (Angela Reda) he clearly intends to prolong the terms of the contract. Also in the cast are (the voice of) veteran Sox Announcer Joe Castiglione, Coach Van Buren (Ron Wisniski), sports reporter Gloria (Lora Lee Gayer), Sister (Kristine Zbornik), and Doris (Allyce Beasley). The Ensemble, who deserve special mention for their dancing skills, consists of Timothy Hughes, Danny Lindgren, Michael Mendez, Victor J. Wisehart, Sean Ewing, Joven Calloway, Ryan Cavanaugh, Steve Geary and Alfie Parker, Jr. They’re quite a team.

The cast is all terrific, but special mention should be made of the charismatic Lukas and the lusciously sexy Reda, with abs and curves to spare, respectively. And speaking of abs, there’s a wonderfully funny, even inspired, shower scene that won’t be spoiled here. It’s also worth noting that Beach ignites the stage in his “eleven o’clock” number. The supporting players Beasley and Zbornik continually bring the house down, even at intermission (again, no spoilers here). It never ceases to amaze what wonders can be created on such a relatively small stage; surely the Red Sox have never danced this well.

Truth be told, the score is not the most memorable ever composed, although it does boast a few standouts, such as the seductive “Whatever Lola Wants”, the rousing “Those Were the Good Old Days”, and the barbershop quartet “(You Gotta Have) Heart”. Other tunes serve as accompaniment to dance numbers, such as “A Little Brains, A Little Talent” and “Shoeless Joe from Hannibal Mo.” (The somewhat dated number, “Who’s Got the Pain?”, was dropped). The remaining songs are pleasant, such as “Six Months Out of Every Year”, “Goodbye Old Girl”, “A Man Doesn’t Know”, “The Game”, “Near to You”, and “Two Lost Souls”. What makes this show is the dancing, as well as the production values; to overcome its relatively weak score, it needs a lot of theatrical art to succeed . With expert Music Direction by Michael O’Flaherty, in his twenty-third season at Goodspeed, and the truly fine Orchestrations by Dan Delange, as well as the ingenious Scenic Design by Adrian W. Jones, the clever Costume Design by David C. Woolard, the complex Lighting Design by Brian Tovar, and the effective Sound Design by Jay Hilton, this “Damn Yankees” is a well balanced success.The Boston accents may be (intentionally) a bit thick, but it works, even if you have to keep an ear sharpened for such lines as “I find your question (where on earth did you find him?) mundane”. Ouch.

If you’re not familiar with Goodspeed, where such shows as “Annie”, “Man of LaMancha” and “Shenandoah” were given birth, you ought to be. This is the forty-sixth (and last) year in the producing career of the legendary Michael Price. The venue is near enough to Boston to attend a matinee, or better yet to make it an overnight getaway. In this localized “Damn Yankees”, the devil is a Yankees fan (but then we knew that), which, as Sister might put it, is a wicked good idea, or as Applegate himself might say, it’s a helluva show.

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